ANOTHER VIEW : In the name of fairness, keep assisted places

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The Independent Online
I share Polly Toynbee's distaste for snobbery, whether found in independent schools or state schools with more socially acceptable catchment areas than others. But even she is open to the charge of cosy self-satisfaction.

In "Buying more than just a good education" (20 December) she comforts herself with the thought that, wherever she lived and "like most people who can afford it, I would be secure in the knowledge that I still had the choice to go private if I didn't like the way things were going in a state school". Bully for Polly.

She then attacks Isis for producing a bulletin on behalf of parents less well off than her but no less anxious to secure the best education for their children. We challenged Labour to come clean on its plans for independent schools, not by misrepresenting its position but by quoting its leading spokesmen.

The main issue is the choice which is open to Polly Toynbee because she can afford it, but which, under Labour, will be closed to others because they cannot. It will be closed because the assisted places scheme will be phased out.

Why? Because even new Labour cannot accept academic selection. But intelligence has rightly been described as a genuinely classless commodity. It is therefore a fairer way of selecting pupils than by income or address.

Professor Joan Freeman revealed a similar blind spot in her letter on 19 December. Her interpretation of research by Professor Peter Saunders and the link she made with assisted places combined superficiality with inaccuracy.

The research did not show state schools "are doing as well by their pupils" as independent schools: it was not a study of schools' current performances but of a cohort of people born nearly 40 years ago. More reliable guides to performance are Department for Education and Employment statistics. They show pupils at all ability levels in independent schools achieving better results than candidates at other schools.

Professor Freeman's assertions about the backgrounds and performance of pupils on the assisted places scheme do not bear scrutiny. Research does not show that "most of the chosen children are from professional homes", it shows that at least eight out of 10 are working class and lower middle class. Last year, assisted place pupils had an overall pass rate of 93.48 per cent (51.26 per cent at grades A and B) at A-level and 91.84 per cent (73.91 per cent at grades A and B) at GCSE. More than 90 per cent went on to university degree courses.

Such impressive outcomes fully vindicate investment in the government scheme. They should even persuade Polly Toynbee to join the campaign to preserve it for the benefit of those whose resources are more limited than hers.

The writer is national director of the Independent Schools Information Service.

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